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Research Papers in Physics and Astronomy

Robert G. Fuller Publications

University of Nebraska - Lincoln Year 

Challenges from Alfred Bork: What has

happened to computers in physics
Robert Fuller

This paper is posted at DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska - Lincoln.
Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
Challenges from Alfred Bork:

What has happened to computers in physics education?

Robert G. Fuller
Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Nebraska – Lincoln

In his 1978 Millikan lecture on Interactive Learning, Alfred Bork discussed eleven different modes of
computer use in physics education. This paper converts Bork’s modes into challenges to the computers in
physics education community and evaluates our progress since 1978. It concludes with a brief discussion
of future challenges.

Alfred Bork, professor of physics at the University of

California Irvine, was the early guru of computers in
physics education. Before many of us even had computer
access on our campuses, Alfred was leading computer
QuickTime™ and a
workshops at AAPT meetings. He connected a computer TIFF (Uncompressed) decompressor
are needed to see this picture.
in a hotel room to his main frame back on the Univ. of
California Irvine campus and led discussions about how
computers might change the content of our physics
courses. Professor Bork received the AAPT Millikan
Award in the summer of 1978 – thirty years ago.
Therefore, it seems appropriate to take stock of what has Dr. Alfred Bork, Millikan Award winner and
happened to computers in physics education since then lecturer, summer, 1978
and what challenges are before us.
In Professor Bork’s Millikan lecture1 he laid out for us several different ways that computers could be
used as a learning device. Bork presents these different modes as aspects of computer use in physics for
discussion during his presentation. I am going to take the liberty to transform his modes into challenges for
the physics education community of 2008. Furthermore, not all of the different ways to use computers in
physics education seem to warrant the same level of discussion, so I have invented by own arbitrary
grouping of Bork’s modes of use. I will examine each of these groups and discuss what I think has
happened since 1978 in the use of computers in physics education and extend Bork’s work to challenge us
for the future of computers in physics education.2

I want to do this for three reasons:

• Challenges can awaken us to new areas of work that need our attention.
• I learned about computers in physics at the feet of Alfred Bork and can bring more than 35 years of
experience to this analysis.
• We need to be reminded of the pioneering work done and insights of Alfred Bork. Sadly, there will be
people reading this article who have never heard of or read anything by Alfred Bork. At a national
conference on computers in education in 2006 I met a faculty member from the University of California
Irvine who did not even recognize the name Alfred Bork. Just as the NSTA created a Robert Karplus prize,
perhaps the AAPT should create an Alfred Bork prize for the innovative use of computers in physics
Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007

Modes in which computers can be used as a learning device as described by Alfred

Bork in 1978:

I have decided to group them into four categories: Learner controlled, teacher controlled,
communication and personal factors, and in true professor tradition I am going to assign a grade for each

Learner Controlled:
• Student control of pacing – computers make individual pacing convenient and commercially practical.
• Student control over content – computers enable us to provide a great variety of interactive learning
experiences and allow students flexibility in choosing them.
The flexible use of time that is permitted by computer use has not really been
used much on a macroscale in physics education. In the 1970s there was a strong
interest in self-paced instruction pioneered at MIT called the Keller Plan or PSI14.
This style of instruction demonstrated improved student learning in a wide variety of
courses15, but has almost completely disappeared in college level physics courses
now. The intensive use of computers would make this type of physics course much
less labor intensive than it was more than 20 years ago, but any attraction of self-
pacing for student learning has not been evident to university faculty except at web-
based or distance education universities.
Of course, on the mircoscale, i.e. when to do my web-based homework, control
can be given completely over to the student, although most teachers do impose some
kind of time limit. For most courses it is not possible to do the homework for the first
week of class during the last week of the term of instruction.
Student control over content has been even less influenced by computers than
control over pacing. I think physics course content is more rigid now that it was in the
heyday of the Keller Plan courses.

• Intellectual tool – students can use computers as learning tools to master concepts.
This is a mode of computer use in which we have excelled since 1978. Consider
the power of the computer algebra systems such as Maple10 and Mathematica11 that
are now available to our students. In physics laboratories we have Vernier12 and
PASCO13 data collecting and analysis software that is superb. The power of these
software packages and the new computers make the use of interactive digital video in
our physics classrooms inexpensive and feasible. In addition our students have ready
access to word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. The intellectual
tools available to our students today are fabulous. The challenge to us as teachers is to
find a way to blend all of these tools into a coherent learning experience of physics
concepts for our students.

Category Grade: When we consider the tremendous opportunities that computers give us to
increase student learning and student motivation when we turn over more of the control of
pacing and content to the learners we realize that we have only begun to stratch the surface of
the category of using computers in physics education. On the other hand, the development of
powerful computer tools for student learning is very impressive, so on balance I have to give
us a grade of B in this category.

Teacher Controlled:
Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
• Interactive learning – computers enable us to make learning interactive, with students constantly cast as
participants in the process rather than as spectators.
This aspect of computer learning has indirectly had a substantial impact on
physics teaching, I think. The peer interaction movement3 and the use of personal
response systems4 in lecture courses have brought interactivity into the passive
lecture setting. Bork, I think, envisioned whole classes interacting in a group setting
at computers. This has happened on some campuses and there is some movement, as
in project SCALE-UP,5 in this direction. But most of the interactive learning is still
left to Just in Time Teaching6 style of homework activities. The broad use of adaptive
feedback to students inputs is still largely lacking.

• Individualization – computers enable us to make the learning experience for each student
unique, tailored to the needs, desires and moods of each student.
This is a facet of computer use that is largely unaddressed. A variety of computer-
based learning activities are provided by some physics teachers but the learning goals
of most physics courses are universalized. Every student in a particular course is
expected to achieve pretty much the same end of course level. We have responded to
the variety of student needs by offering different batches of physics content. It seems
to me that this is a challenge that the computers in physics education community is
not yet prepared to address.
One aspect of individualization that I think has been addressed is trying to cope
with the great variation in student skill sets as they enter a physics course. This wide
range in student skills is typical of nearly every introductory college-level physics
class. A variety of remediation activities can be made available to students to aid
them in becoming successful physics students even though they may have entered the
course with very weak preparation.

• Experience – computers enable us to create worlds, realms of experiences, with the hope of enriching
formal learning environments that follow.
Through the use of Physlets7 and such programs as Interactive Physics8 and
interactive websites such as the Virtual Physics Laboratory9 physics students today
have access to a wide variety of enriching computer learning environments. Of
course, many students will not use these learning resources unless the use of these
resources are somehow integrated into the course grade. That remains an important
challenge to physics teachers.

• Time and sequence control – computers enable the timing and sequence of material to be modified upon
student request.
Those of us who used the Keller Plan in the 1970s frequently developed variable
paths that students could use to wander through the content of a physics course. We
created the various paths, primarily based upon our knowledge of the essential
prerequisites for learning various physics concepts, but the students could decide
which way to go. The students also had some control of which concepts they sought
to master. Computers make this type of flexibility even easier to manage than it was
back in the paper and pencil era of the Keller Plan. There has been considerable
attention given to adaptive testing processes16, but I have seen very little evidence of
it becoming an important aspect of physics teaching.

• Testing as a learning mode – computers enable us to make testing an interactive learning experience by
providing immediate and precisely formulated feedback, offering direct aid to students.
Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
I think we are really doing well with this. The Just in Time Teaching movement
along with such software programs as WebAssign17 and eGrade18 have made this
mode of computer use accessible and useful. It is being adopted by a wide variety of
faculty and institutions. It shows great promise for increasing student learning.

• Management – computers can maintain class records.

Again, this is a mode of computer use in physics education that has progressed very well
since 1978. With Blackboard19 and similar courseware management software packages the
management of physics courses is much easier and more efficient than it used to be. In addition,
the computer testing data retrieval systems can give an instructor much more detailed
information about the study habits of the students than was possible years ago.

Category Grade: We have struggled with this category for 30 years. We have been helped tremendously
by the personal computer revolution, compared to the time sharing main frame context of 1978. The
domination of the personal computer environment with only a few different operating systems has
made a variety of powerful courseware available to physics teachers. While there are several serious
challenges left for teachers we have done pretty well for a grade of B+.

• Communication – computers enable us to use electronic mail and the world wide web to communicate
with students.
There are communication possibilities today that far exceed, I think, what Bork
could have envisioned in his 1978 Millikan lecture. Physics teachers as a whole may
not be taking full advantage of all of them, but there is wide spread use of both email
and websites to enhance communication between the teacher and the students and
among the students themselves. Now a teacher can encourage the development of e-
based study groups and/or lab partners for the improvement of student learning. The
ability to podcast physics content offers whole new areas of teacher-student
interaction that are beginning to be explored. How do we deliver physics messages to
iPods and iPhones?

Personal Factors:
• Personal factors – computers have no prejudices. Some students desire to deal with learning materials in
an impersonal way.
This has been a very strong aspect of the use of computers in physics education
from the beginning. It is relatively easy in physics to provide a wide variety of
physics experiences and different questions to students and students can repeat them
ad nauseam without penalty. Most student responses to physics questions are
relatively easy to parse and partial credit for partial answers can be readily assigned.

Category Grades: I may be missing something here, but except for the challenge of figuring out
how to use iPods and iPhones for more effective learning of physics, I think the physics
education community is doing very well with computer-based communication and personal
factors. I give this category an A grade.

Alfred Bork described a variety of modes of computer use in physics education in 1978,
just at the beginning of the personal computer era. There remain challenges to us in both learner

Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
and teacher controlled uses of computers. How can we use student control over pacing and
content to improve student learning? How can we use adaptive feedback and testing more
effectively in our physics courses? What are new ways that we can make physics courses more
individualized? I would like to see us be able to make more use of interactive digital video of
physics experiments. What about some version of YouTube20 physics? In addition, the new
wireless technologies and the ubiquitous iPods and iPhones present us with new challenges. But
I hope we can expect to see the physics education community at the forefront in figuring out how
to best use all technologies for the enhance of physics learning.

Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
Alfred Bork, “Interactive Learning: Millikan Lecture, American Association of Physics Teachers,
London, Ontario, June, 1978,” Am. J. Phys. 47(1), 5-10, (1979).
For an examination of the situation in 1986 see Robert G. Fuller, “Resource Letter CPE-1: Computers in
Physics Education,” Am. J. Phys. 54(9), 782-786, (1986) and the associated reprint book published
by the AAPT in 1986.
Ben A. Green, Jr., "Physics Teaching by the Keller Plan at MIT", Amer. J. Phys. 39(7), 764-775 (1971).
Thomas C. Taveggia, “Personalized instruction: A summary of comparative research, 1967–1974” Amer.
J. Phys. 44(11), 1028-1033 (1976).
Maple™, a computer algebra program from Maplesoft, 615 Krumpf Drive, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
N2V 1K8.
Mathematica™, a computer algebra program from Wolfram Research, Inc., 100 Trade Center Drive,
Champaign, IL 61820-7237.
LabQuest™ software from Vernier Software & Technology, 13979 SW Millikan Way, Beaverton, OR
DataStudio™ from PASCO, 10101 Foothills Blvd., Roseville, CA 95747.

Eric Mazur, PEER INSTRUCTION: A User's Manual (Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458,
S.W.Draper & M.I. Brown, “Increasing interactivity in lectures using an electronic voting system,” J.
Computer Assisted Learning, 20(2), 81-94, (2004). For many additional references see
Robert Beichner and Jeffrey Saul, “Introduction to the SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for
Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) Project,” Proceedings of the International School of
Physics ‹‹Enrico Fermi››, Varenna, Italy, (July 2003).
Gregor Novak, Andrew Garvin, Wolfgang Christian and Evelyn Patterson, Just-In-Time Teaching:
Blending Active Learning with Web Technology (Addison-Wesley, ©1999).
Wolfgang Christian and Mario Belloni, Physlet® Physics: Interactive Illustrations, Explorations and
Problems for Introductory Physics (Addison-Wesley, © 2004).
Interactive Physics ( Design Simulation Technologies, Inc. © 2007).
Fu-Kwun Hwang, Virtual Physics Laboratory,

Submitted to the American Journal of Physics Sept., 2007
Howard Wainer, with Neil J. Dorans, Ronald Flaugher, Bert F. Green, Robert J. Mislevy, Lynne
Steinberg and David Thissen, Computerized Adaptive Testing: A Primer (Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, Inc., © 2000).
WebAssign™ available from WebAssign, 1730 Varsity Drive, Suite 200, NC 27606-5228.
eGrade™ now available as WileyPLUS™ from John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken,
New Jersey 07030-5774.
Blackboard™ now available from Blackboard Inc., 1899 L Street NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC
YouTube™ is a video sharing website.